Saturday, March 28, 2015

FLEXN: The Big Stage

Giving a stage this large over to flex dancers at the Park Avenue Armory feels like a radical act. The scale and context of the production of FLEXN can't be ignored. We're in a storied building of Manhattan wealth and privilege. Peter Sellars is directing (with collaborator Regg Roc). The stage fills the drill hall. But we are here for the dancers. Street dancers.  And they are here on their own terms telling their own stories.

The stories being told are both simple and epic--domestic violence, dead end jobs, a woman torn between two men, gun violence, gangs, war, fatherhood, and prison.  From the biographies in the program these dancers have seen a lot of pain in their lives and dancing has literally saved them.  Regg Roc has taught many of them the language of flex. 

They improv their way through each step of each performance.  Often it is one or two dancers left to tell the story with R&B and hip-hop songs to guide the narrative. There are moments where the choreography can be too literal (a lyric about opening doors leads to miming opening doors). But overall when left to express life battles through stage battles it is anything but ordinary.  Muscular anger, flexible defiance, rattling grief.  Presenting a variety of styles and approaches to flex, some dancers move with robotic edges, others flow like liquid. Muscles pop. Arms seem to know no limits. They are exploding from all limbs with energy, power, and expression. And there's a tremendous sense of play. 

The Walgreens check-out segment was particularly well-staged using the full cast to dramatize the soloist's experiences working in Canarsie.  The vignettes lose some energy when the entire cast performs as prisoners. Each dancer is given a short solo in an imagined 6x9 cell.  It started out strong but the momentum of the overall piece slows down as we wait for each dancer to perform in turn. Though the "man in the mirror" number was a stand-out amongst the prison scenes.

There were moments here I thought Steven Hoggett would die for.  If he saw this cast of incredibly malleable bodies who move in ways he had not previously conceived of he might lose his mind.  But like Hoggett's work a lot of this dance form is narrative and muscular.  And yet there are moments of extreme delicateness as well.  There are steps akin to pointe and watching these lithe men in sneakers move like ballerinas was unexpected.

It was pleasing to see FLEXN drew such a mixed crowd. Young and old. Black and white. Uptown and downtown. However, I could have done without the policy allowing photography during the show.  It was massively distracting (particularly the dickhead whose camera had sound on and took a lot of video and photos) . It also led to a breakdown of other theater rules (people felt comfortable talking, kids getting up and walking over to talk to their parents, checking and sending text messages).

As impressive as these dancers are with their contortionate choreography and energetic bounce I think they deserved our utmost attention.  Same as their ballet brethren. They are bringing the same kind of precision and emotion to the stage. Why not treat them like the artists they are.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Small Mouth Sounds: All that is Unspoken
Photo credit: Ben Arons

"I must admit to you now.  I have no plan."

There's something about a heavy rain that makes you think maybe it will wash away all the pain. But the poetry of rain is often far from the reality of rain. Usually it just makes things wet and soggy. So like the idea of seeking spiritual comfort from an outside source, sometimes it does not quite deliver on its promise of change. It's an idea that comes to life in Bess Wohl's (Pretty Filthy) smart, sadly funny play Small Mouth Sounds set around a spiritual retreat which brings together a group of strangers each carrying some pain in their life.

Off in the woods, these characters at the retreat take a vow of silence.  Small Mouth Sounds becomes highly dependent on the actors to tell the story with very few words. With minimal mugging and mostly unspoken grief we experience their almost entirely silent spiritual journey seeking answers from an unseen, distracted guru (Jojo Gonzalez).  With Wohl's eye for detail, Rachel Chavkin's gentle direction, and strong performances across the board we quickly know these people-- A woman who is quick to tears, with her life spilling out of her bags, and the complete inability to follow any of the retreat rules (Jessica Almasy); the loving couple who are grinning and bearing the agony of one of them being ill but there is a rising tension between them (Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey);  A father who dotes on the picture of his daughter (Eric Lochtefeld); An attractive yoga instructor who is on the outside the picture perfect student but completely selfish and self-involved (Babak Tafti); The wannabe spiritualist who tries so hard at everything, lives by every rule, wants so much, but nothing goes his way (Brad Heberlee).

With scenes oscillating between lectures from the guru, simple domestic moments as the characters unwind in their tents in the wilderness, to retreat activities, the characters do a lot without saying a lot. Surprisingly the play still holds together which is a testament to the creative team.  What could have been merely an acting exercise becomes a well-structured and supported dramatic story.

As the characters are told to listen to the silence, so must the audience.  Every gesture, action, and interaction becomes the clues we have to follow.  Everyone wears their pain differently.  They cope by reaching out and connecting with their fellow retreat-ers, or not.  Even without words, we can still see conflict, understanding, familiarity, love, attraction, lust, confusion, acquiescence, and rebellion.  It's a full spectrum of the human experience without those pesky words to get in the way.  Although at the start we can only guess at exactly what ails each one, eventually their specific stories become more complete.  And there are moments of sublime connection and disconnection.  A flirting scene gets hijacked by another man such that one character is left standing alone in his sad white underpants of defeat.  Someone who thought they were truly understood by another, discovers things were not quite as they thought it was.  As the characters struggle, exist, open themselves up, try, fail, and fall short, we can see ourselves and our imperfections in all of this.  It's exactly what you want out of a good play and everyone delivers.

The cast make this all so messy, awkward, and real. It's rare to watch a play where every performer is an equal to each other but here they work together as an ensemble to make the story happen.  And for all the serious issues being addressed, the play (and the performers) carry the comedy with the same confidence.  I'm surprised I have not seen most of these performers on stage before (I saw Almasy in Beautiful Day in November and Tafti in Rajiv Joseph's The North Pool) but I'm going to look out for them in the future.

The entire production just clicks.  As we are encased in a blond wooden box (set by Laura Jellinek) with projections of rain, ponds, trees, insects, and the natural world (projections by Andrew Schneider), and the thumping sound of rain and rumbling of thunder (sound design by Stowe Nelson) it does feel like we've gone upstate and gotten away from the city for a while.

It's a delight to experience exceedingly talented people, doing effective and meaningful work as they are here.  Chavkin should be credited with taking this challenging piece of writing and making it look effortless. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.